Newsstand owners say Temple students and faculty complain they’re going nuts listening to the sound. Children headed for the subway scream, “That’s the bird!” before they plug their ears and scamper across Broad Street. Shopkeepers say they’ll think twice before propping their doors open, even in sunny weather.
With climbing springtime temperatures and the increased foot traffic that follows, more people than ever will hear that pulsating noise and will crane their necks to see what the buzz is all about.
They’ll find on street posts new speakers – right next to the digital “walk” and “don’t walk” signs – housed in yellow boxes no bigger than those for takeout rice. They’re the same yellow boxes that have been bugging or bewildering many Main Campus passersby since they were activated about a month ago.
“I’m standing on Broad and Montgomery, waiting to cross the street … and I hear this small, audible car alarm first. Eight on nine different sounds, like a car alarm,” said Michael McFall, operations manager for Campus Safety Services, to describe the speakers shortly after they were posted. “Then you hear a bird chirping. Of course, as you’re looking from east to west, when the [traffic] light changes you see the clear picture of a person crossing the street. … But why it’s designed that way, with a car alarm and a bird chirping, I don’t know.”
Steve Lorenz does. He’s a traffic construction engineer for the Philadelphia Department of Streets. That’s the city agency responsible for activating the speakers as part of the Avenue of the Arts North project. The North Philly revitalization effort is supposed to eventually mirror the popular Avenue of the Arts on South Broad Street.
But why do the audible pedestrian signals – their technical term – sound like a procession of car alarms and migrating birds? So the visually impaired, no matter where they’re from or where they’re going, can understand the signals.
“Chirp, chirp; cuck, cuck,” is how Lorenz described the sound.
“The sounds are known internationally,” he said. “So the visually impaired community, if they’re in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, London, Paris or anywhere else, they’re trained to know the directional signals.”
Renee Kirby, assistant director of the university’s Disability Resources and Services department, said Temple’s visually impaired population will benefit from the signals. But that’s not all, she said. Although the beeping sounds will help the 30 to 40 visually impaired students and staff who are voluntarily registered with the office, Kirby said the Temple community and its neighbors will also benefit. The elderly are one example, she said.
Kirby added that the signals aren’t much to complain about, especially in a large city that is constantly humming with activity.
“It’s a matter of everyone just realizing that these things can coexist at the same time,” said Kirby of the marriage between the signals and the rest of the city’s noise. “When you want complete quiet, go home.”
The 24-hour signals, built by Canada-based Novax Industries Corporation, are designed to chirp five decibels louder than nearby street noise. That means they automatically get louder near rush hour and quieter overnight – when people are typically home and opting for quiet.
The signals aren’t standard in the city and are so far only posted at an intersection on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, near the Philadelphia Veterans Hospital; at Broad and Spring Garden streets; and at four spots throughout Main Campus: Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue; Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue; Broad Street and Berks Mall; and at Broad and Diamond streets. As of yesterday, all were chirping except the ones at Broad and Berks Mall.
The recently installed signal at Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue replaced the voice of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who used to tell pedestrians when it was clear to cross the street. (Lorenz said the city convinced Powell to do the voice-over when he was in town a few years ago.)
Despite mutterings from students crossing the street or puzzled glances skyward, Lorenz said the signals have gone over relatively well. He said the Streets Department has only received a few complaints about the noise, mainly at the intersection of Broad Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.
As for his own opinion, Lorenz said he has yet to form one.
“Right now, I’ll be honest with you, I’m learning as I’m going with this. I know more about a lot of these things than anyone I’ve talked to in the city. But I haven’t installed enough of them yet to say whether I like them or not like them,” Lorenz said. “I’ve learned enough to know you have to appropriately place them, because otherwise you’ll be sending mixed messages.”
Brandon Lausch can be reached at email@example.com.